US Open Cup: Thoughts on US Soccer survey

I had the opportunity to participate in the US Soccer Voices survey about the US Open Cup.

Here’s a thought the survey format did not allow me to convey…

In a country with an open soccer pyramid, a competition like the US Open Cup serves as a bureaucracy/bias-buster and a way for reserve players to get play time against top players, to test their mettle.

Bias-busting: A division 1 team should beat a division 3 team by a few goals. If the division 3 team hangs in there, there might be something to be learned. Maybe the division 3 team has a few players that have unfairly been written off by division 1 team managers (biases), and they deserve a second look, or the division 3 team is employing different tactics that deserve some attention, either in copying or maybe it makes the coach worth looking at.

Does this mean this will happen in every single game between a D1 and D3 team? Nope. Most of these game should confirm what we would all expect, the D1 team will win comfortably. But, it’s the 1-in-50 or games where all the soccer community might learn something valuable.

Play time for reserves. Another purpose is to give reserve players more chances to play. In a game that only allows 3 subs per game, it’s tough for reserve players to get play time, so these types of competitions allow for that. That may also impact the conclusions that can be drawn from the first purpose (bias busting), but folks can generally adjust for that (“D3 was within a goal of D1, but D1 only had 2 of their starters).

In the US, the second purpose (play time for reserve players) is meant to be solved by having the reserve players play on the D1 team’s ‘minor league’ squad. But, that doesn’t give that player exposure to D1 players to see how they stack up.

Like most things, US Soccer seems to only see the superficial idea of what the US Open Cup is — a popular event that they can make money on.

They miss out on what it really is: It’s a way for a soccer federation to advance the sport through competition, rather than saddle it with bureaucracy.

The survey seemed focus on determining whether the ‘minor league’ teams of D1 teams be included in the competition.

Using the above rationale, they should. In competition, the more teams the better. I don’t think they should be allowed to bring down starters from their D1 teams, just so their minor league team can win some hardware. But, all teams should be able to participate in that each one can add a bit of knowledge to the pot of discovering top players, effective tactics and top coaches.

I think it’s useful to consider that US Soccer should see itself more of an organizer of a ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition than as the overlords of soccer (which I believe is how they view their role now).

In a battle of the bands, the idea is to encourage as many bands in the competition as possible and let them battle it out.

Missing from multi-million soccer complexes

Space for teams to warm-up, including goals. For a country that spends so much effort getting kids participating in soccer, we make it difficult for them to practice shooting.

Play areas for kids on the sidelines to go play some pickup, like a mini-pitch. It would be good to have one of these that’s accessible when the complex isn’t locked up, too.

Shooting/passing walls. At most empty goals at a soccer complex I see kids taking shots. Just think how many more shots they could take if the ball bounced back to them. Somehow our country got an abundance of tennis rebounding walls for tennis players to practice their skills on, but that concept has escaped the soccer community.

You don’t see that in soccer

I saw a social media post for tryouts for an 8u baseball team. It said players should already be able to catch and throw with ease and hit a ball off a pitching machine at X speed.

Have you seen prerequisites like that for competitive tryouts for soccer? I haven’t.

Here are a few that I would post if I were putting a team together: Players should already be able to trap, dribble and pass the ball with ease. Players should already be able to drive the ball 20 yards.

Why? If they don’t already have these basics, chances are low that they will work on their own to bring them up and I will spend so much time in practice on the basics that I won’t have time for much else.

Folks unfamiliar with soccer may need more specifics on what these basics look like.

Trapping and passing the ball with ease means they can use the inside of both feet to trap the ball and then pass the ball, accurately, 5-10 yards in multiple directions with 1 second or less between the trap and the pass. If it takes your child 2 or more seconds to get the ball under control and get the pass off, they aren’t ready for competitive soccer. If they can’t pass 5-10 yards accurately, they are not ready.

Dribbling the ball with ease does not mean kicking the ball and running after it. It means moving with the ball, touching it with each step of the dribbling foot, turning while maintaining control and shielding the ball.

Driving the ball 20 or more yards with intentional direction and accuracy to within a 3-5 yards of where you want it to go.

I say this from the perspective of seeing fair numbers of teenage club soccer players with years of experience that still can’t do these with ease.

Maybe they exist, but I can’t imagine teams of teenage competitive baseball players who can’t catch and throw with ease.

I think I just uncovered why. In baseball, they expect players to have the basics BEFORE they start playing competitive ball.

Is pro/rel like capitalism?

I often see comparisons of US Soccer to socialism, while pro/rel is like capitalism. Then the discussion descends into capitalism vs. socialism.

I like this analogy instead: Pro/rel is like the Silicon Valley of the 1980s – 2000s, while US Soccer is like a mature bureaucratic corporation.

Pro/rel aligns incentives to attract investment, unleash innovation and healthy competition and induce a large number of experiments in soccer from grassroots to the top pro level, like how Silicon Valley attracted investors and innovators to develop great tech products.

US Soccer is like a mature corporation, resting on the laurels of its cash cows, that seeks to limit competition and innovation, to protect itself.

Coaching Corner: Keep the ball

As I said before, when the ball comes your way you have two jobs: Job one is to keep the ball. Job two is to create good balls.

I went backwards on this for a reason. Ultimately, good balls win games. We have to create them. We have to see them. They are important.

But, if we always try to create good balls, we will turn the ball over more than we should, which will hurt us. Sometimes, maybe more of the time, we need to play it safer and do job one and keep the ball so we can improve our team’s chances of creating a good ball in a few more moments.

Keeping the ball, and creating good balls, has several levels.

First is your ball mastery — first touch, dribbling & passing. You will be a big minus for your team if you can’t do these well, nor will you be able to advance to the next levels if you can’t do these. The idea is to be good enough that you can be making your decision on what’s next as the ball is coming your way, without losing the ball.

Second is moving to get open. We want teammates with the ball to have as many passing options as possible, so we all need to be moving to make that happen. You may not always get the pass, but if you’re moving, you may be drawing coverage, which might open space for another teammate, which increases our chances of keeping the ball.

A lot of teams break down here and never know it. They too often have only one passing option, the most obvious one. Everybody sees it, including the other team, which leads to a turnover.

The third level of keeping the ball is communication, which conveys direction of options. Words like trail, square, through, switch can give a teammate lots of info to make a good decision. Timing is also important. It’s much better to convey that option about a second before they get the ball than when they already have it. That will increase quality of decisions and speed of play.

The fourth level of keeping the ball is understanding passing and attacking patterns/combinations. To do this, you need high effectiveness on the previous three levels. There are lots of patterns. Common patterns are switching through the back, give-and-go, overlap and a cross, but there are many more.

The fifth level is creating your own patterns and combinations. It’s good to learn the common patterns of the game, but your competition will learn those too, as well as ways to shut them down. So, to stay ahead of your competition, you also need to create your own unique patterns. This takes creativity, knowledge of the game and understanding of yours’ and your teammates’ abilities. These will sometimes be discovered by accident and improvisation in the play of the game, but they can also be thought about while brushing your teeth.

Coaching Corner: Good balls

When the ball comes your way, you have two jobs.

Job one is to keep the ball with the team. More on that later.

Job number two is to create a ‘good ball’. A ‘good ball’ is well-played ball that creates an advantage for your team. These are potential game changers.

Examples can range from laying a ball out for a teammate to take a good shot with one touch or as small as popping a loose ball to a nearby open teammate, turning a 50/50 chance of winning the ball into 100% chance.

Get in the habit of recognizing good balls and letting your teammates know by telling them, “Good ball!” The more we reward them, the more we will produce them and the more chances we will create.

Why own a pro sports team?

Many assume people own sports teams as a way to make money. That’s true, but not in the usual way.

Most businesses are valued based on how much cash they pump out. But, not sports teams.

Believe it or not, sports teams don’t pump out a lot of cash. Most of the revenue of the sports team goes to the players.

So, how do sports teams make money for the owners?

For their relatively small financial size, they carry a lot of prestige and name recognition. This is great for business, especially the owners’ other businesses, where they make their real money.

It turns out owning a sports team helps owners make more money for their other businesses, indirectly, through the higher profile, and directly as deals are signed in the warm surroundings of the owners box.

It doesn’t hurt that somewhere down the road, if the owner tires of owning the team, there are plenty of other wealthy folks out there willing to pay top dollar for those benefits.

Just remember, that value has little to do with the relative paltry profits from the team and much more to do with how owning the team can be used to grow their other businesses.

Some wealthy folks own teams as a hobby, too. It’s a fun distraction from their boring business lives. It’s like a vacation home or golf club membership. It has multiple purposes. It can be used for leisure and for business.

It’s good to keep this in mind if you find yourself coming to the defense of wealthy team owners by assuming they wouldn’t invest in a sport team in a pro/rel system that could be relegated if the owner doesn’t invest enough in payroll to keep the team competitive.

Trust me, wealthy business owners do not need you defending their interests. They aren’t strangers to taking risks.

Pro/rel arguments from recent Twitter, what comes first support or pro/rel?

Argument (from Australia): The same people who want pro/rel don’t show up to support the teams we have now. Would they show up to support a team that gets relegated?

My response: It makes sense to me that people who prefer pro/rel don’t support non-pro/rel soccer.

My longer response: I think the person who makes this argument falls into a couple a traps that they don’t realize they’re in.

The first trap is putting the cart before the horse by assuming support for soccer must come before pro/rel. My belief is that pro/rel helps increase support for soccer, so wanting the support to come first only prevents the support from developing by blocking the thing that helps cause more support.

I got into more detail on why I think pro/rel causes support for soccer to grow in this post. Hint: It’s more about what happens at the grassroots than whether the it’s more fun to watch two teams fight to keep from getting relegated.

The second trap is seeing soccer as a commodity. They think that,to a fan, it doesn’t matter whether soccer comes from a pro/rel league or a closed league, soccer is soccer. So, if you don’t support the soccer we have now, why would you support that soccer?

But, to someone who prefers the sporting merit that pro/rel brings, closed league soccer and pro/rel soccer are not the same.

To the person making the argument, the argument sounds like this: the same people who keep saying they want some alcoholic beverages, don’t drink the alcoholic beverages we have now. Why give them another alcoholic beverage if they don’t drink the alcoholic beverages we have now?

To the people who support pro/rel, that argument sounds like this: the same people who keep saying they like bourbon don’t drink the beer we have now. Why give them bourbon if they don’t drink the beer we have now?

Soccer based on sporting merit is different than closed league soccer, just like bourbon is different from beer. Both are soccer, just like bourbon and beer are both alcoholic beverages. While the category of ‘alcoholic beverages’ might be useful for some things, like how to arrange a grocery store, they are less useful for other things, like what individual people prefer.

It makes sense to me that folks who like bourbon, don’t drink beer, even if beer is the only alcoholic beverage the local grocer carries.

Luckily, for bourbon drinkers, there is competition and some stores carry their preferred alcoholic beverage. Similarly, with soccer there is plenty of competition around the world that offers what they want: sporting merit. Don’t be surprised when they choose not to drink the local beer, when they have plenty of imported bourbon to choose from.

Of course, the beer monopolist might hear this line of reasoning and think their path forward is to takeover those foreign bourbon makers and convert them to beer makers, to eliminate the competition, much like how Inbev seemingly took over the world makers of alcoholic beverages. Indeed, some think that the European Super League and the rumored merger of the MLS and Liga MX, are moves on that template.

That’s a shame. Why not simply try making bourbon?

I think I know why. Because the monopolist thinks the players have too much economic power in the sporting merit model and they don’t want the players to hold those cards. They want the owners to have the power. This is what drives most American sports from our top pro leagues to the NCAA, folks want to make money off the athletes while keeping the athletes as powerless as possible.

The next logical question is why do players in closed leagues put up with it? Don’t they see that the owners just want to have the power and not pay them what they are worth?

Well, I’ll give credit to the the players in the MLS. They aren’t dumb. They know that in pro/rel, many of them would not have roster spots in the top division because they aren’t good enough. If they were playing at all, they would be playing further down the pyramid likely making less*, while their division 1 roster spots were filled with higher caliber and higher priced talent.

So, the current players also benefit from from keeping the economic power in the owners’ hands. By limiting what owners can spend on payroll, they keep the payroll in their talent range. Nifty.

*I say likely here, because that is what I believe the the players think. However, I believe that if my trap #1 is correct (pro/rel causes support), then they may not make less by playing further down the pyramid. I think it’s possible that division 2 & 3 teams become as valuable as folks believe MLS teams are today (but aren’t really) and so their payrolls would be on par with current MLS teams, while the Division 1 would elevate.

But, it is tough for folks with zero sum mindsets to imagine how things can be different in positive sum worlds. And, who knows, I could be wrong. I’m just judging from the actual experiences of leagues with pro/rel who are far more successful than the MLS has proven to be.

Recent from Twitter: Why soccer players in the U.S. don’t have spatial awareness

TOVO Academy Todd Beane asked why soccer youth in the US lack spatial awareness.

My answer: Too much time at training spent making up for basic skill dev not accomplished informally with family and friends.

I believe Beane’s preferred answer is that spatial awareness training isn’t prioritized in American soccer.

Which, I also agree with. But, I think that goes back to my answer.

Spatial awareness training just doesn’t get your team much advantage on the pitch on Saturday in the U.S. if the kids can’t get the ball to that space.

If, as Tom Byers points out, kids came to their first club team as 8 yo’s with the basics, then teams would be working a whole lot less on the basics and more on the spatial awareness, if it were to emerge as a competitive margin.

But, at the present moment, the two primary competitive margins in the U.S. are how many players on the team have the basics and how good the team’s top 1 or 2 players are. So, clubs spend a lot time recruiting those top 1-2 players and try teaching the rest of the kids the basics.

Btw…I’ve seen teams at age 8 or 9 with great spatial awareness. They just happened to be made up of children of recent immigrants from soccer cultures, who play with their family and friends all the time. Some of these teams didn’t even practice as a team. They just signed up to play and could still pound the kids working on basics 10-1.

In the Twitter thread, Beane mentioned that he has seen American teen boys with good skills that also lack awareness. What he hasn’t seen is where those kids came from. How long ago did they cement those skills? Have they still been playing on teams where they are the 1-2 good players, while everyone else lacks the basics?

Here’s another point of comparison. Relatively low level American basketball players have good spatial awareness. I believe they learned most of that in informal play. Organized play may have put some finishing touches on it, but 75% of it was there by the time kids are making the cut to competitive teams by age 11 or 12.

Cross pollinated soccer free play

I see lots of soccer coaches talk about the importance of building free play into practices. The current US Soccer practice framework is called “play-practice-play.”

I, too, was once a believer of this and tried it, but changed my mind when it seemed move the kids backwards on development.

Thinking about how I learned basketball in my childhood, 90% came from what I call cross pollinated free play. That is, I played soccer informally with lots of different groups of folks and from each group, I learned different things and, I think, they learned stuff from my group.

I also played with folks of all different ages, older and younger, and of differing skill levels. The older or more skilled players transferred their knowledge and skill, implicitly and explicitly.

Free play at soccer practice, especially among the same team or group of teams, is a sterile bubble that misses out on this cross pollination. It tends to be a Galapagos Islands of evolution. What evolves from that free play, doesn’t match up well when tested against folks with more cross pollination.